‘Our membership is of no importance whatever unless it signifies that we are committed to something of far greater and more lasting significance than can adequately be conveyed by the closest association with any movement or organisation.’
(Edgar G Dunstan, Quaker faith & practice 11.02, 5th edition)
For a religious society without a separate class of leaders, in which every Friend shares responsibility for the governance of the community and its resources, membership has played an important role in Britain Yearly Meeting. It has provided an opportunity for newcomers to make a deliberate act of commitment to the Quaker community and to assume a full share of responsibility for its governance and financial support. Membership has served to indicate acceptance of mutual accountability for upholding collective discernment, including faithfulness to corporate Quaker testimony. The membership process has also offered a way of recognising and celebrating an inner transition from seeker to ‘convinced’ Friend.
Over recent decades membership has become a contested issue for British Quakers, leading to regular calls for its abandonment or radical revision. Some object to the membership process on grounds of principle, such as the supposed conflict with our ‘testimony to equality’ created by drawing a boundary between insiders and outsiders, or the process of 'judging' who is acceptable to become a member.
It has become common for people to attend meetings for many years, and to take on roles of responsibility within them, while being clear that they do not intend to apply for membership. As fewer attenders join, the proportion of members has decreased markedly. In many meetings it has become difficult to find Friends to fulfil responsibilities which require membership (such as eldership and oversight), leading to the growing practice of appointing attenders to these roles. This further undermines the rationale for distinguishing between members and attenders at all, which increasingly appears to be a meaningless distinction.
In fact we have made membership almost meaningless by our practice of it. For several decades our membership processes have failed to reflect a shared understanding of the core commitments involved in membership. Quaker faith & practice includes some quite clear statements about the application process which may make surprising reading:
Membership is also a way of saying to the meeting, and to the world, that you accept the fundamental elements of being a Quaker: the understanding of divine guidance, the manner of corporate worship and the ordering of the meeting’s business, the practical expression of inward convictions and the equality of all before God.’ (11.01)
I suspect that in most meetings it is rare for any explicit reference to these ‘fundamental elements of being a Quaker’ to be made at any point in the membership process. Instead, membership practices seem to have diverged quite widely between different area meetings. Some meetings might emphasise one or another particular aspect of Quaker tradition (my area meeting asks explicitly about acceptance of the peace testimony). Generally, however, the most common tendency is to have little or no accepted standard for membership at all, beyond the individual’s desire to join.
The consequence over many years has been that Quaker membership no longer means that someone shares any common understanding of, or commitment to, the Quaker way. As Patricia Loring has observed in Listening Spirituality, ‘the consequence of having no standard [for membership] is that the Meeting conforms to the vision of those it has admitted.’ Hence, most British Friends share the culture and values of the liberal middle-class background that they largely belong to, without necessarily having any common commitment to specifically Quaker traditions, testimony or practices.
Renewal of our Society’s spiritual roots in core Quaker practices needs a re-assessment of our membership process. All of the elements of a more meaningful understanding and practice of membership are in fact already contained in the current version of our Book of Discipline. They simply need digging out and deciding to take them seriously enough to practice them.
Preparation for potential new members.
Our meetings could make use of the advice given in Quaker faith & practice 11.08 to ‘nurture and support individuals of all ages so that they can develop a sense of belonging and an understanding of our shared beliefs, testimonies and spiritual discipline.’ This could be done in an intentional and explicit way to encourage attenders to become more familiar with the ‘fundamental elements of being a Quaker’ (and especially our understanding of core Quaker practices for worship, discernment and testimony). This would, of course, require all of those involved in the membership process, including overseers, elders and visitors, to work on exploring and challenging their own understanding of the Quaker way.
At Sheffield Central meeting, we have offered a regular series of talks and discussions on the ‘Quaker Basics’, particularly intended for attenders. These are quite easy to organise, running for an hour after meeting on Sunday, with each session introduced by a different experienced Friend. The topics we have included are worship, discernment, origins, testimony and community. Last year, we concluded with an additional session specifically on membership.
Mentoring or spiritual friendship
There is an important role in the membership process for personal relationship with one or more experienced Friends, to accompany and support the person considering membership. Our idea of how to help people understand Quaker practices has often been limited to giving them a book or leaflet, which is inadequate on many levels. Quaker faith & practice 11.08 makes reference to the possibility of ‘special nurturing or supporting Friends’ who could accompany potential new members, both before and after the formal membership process, to offer supportive listening and sharing of experience.
There is already a model for this mentoring process in the 'Becoming Friends' learning resource, and it could easily be extended to offer one-to-one support to any attenders who are considering membership. In some cases, this might need to draw on Friends from outside the local or area meeting. Given the very unequal distribution of Quaker numbers and resources between meetings, this could also offer a way for larger and better-resourced meetings to support others that are struggling.
The practicalities of setting up a more meaningful and helpful process for potential new members are straightforward enough. More fundamentally, however, they rely on shared discernment by the existing members of an area meeting, and agreement about what the core commitments of Quaker membership are. In many meetings, this is likely to be the real stumbling block to any improvement in membership practices. The current tendency is often to try to avoid potential conflict by avoiding discussion about the requirements of membership, or immediately abandoning any attempts at change as soon as someone challenges them as ‘exclusive’. We need to have a deeper conversation than this, one that is not afraid to question current assumptions about the minimal meaning of membership, if we are to enable membership to perform a useful role in the life of our communities.
What does Quaker membership mean to you? Are there ways that your meeting has tried to improve the membership process?